A BUYING GUIDE FOR RUNNING SHOES
By Caitlin Burke
They're essential to your workout, and buying the right pair is key to preventing injury. Like loved ones, running shoes should never be taken for granted. Herewith, a thorough review of how to find the best shoe for your foot type.
Women's feet are different from men's, and running shoes are specialized to accommodate those differences. The more you understand about what you need in a shoe, the more easily you can get the performance you're looking for.
The first decision is where to shop. "Big box" sports emporiums, department stores, specialty running shops - all carry running shoes, but all sell them differently. Big box stores may offer the largest selection of shoes but lack the staff to help you choose the right pair. Department stores or mall shops have a smaller selection of shoes and the staff may not be trained to help you distinguish running shoes from more casual models. The attention and knowledge of staff in specialty running stores is useful, especially for beginning runners who don't know their foot needs.
Women typically have narrower heels and wider forefeet (the ball of the foot). Also, some research suggests that women tend to overpronate: an excess of the natural inward rolling motion that helps the foot to absorb shock. The main foot categories are defined by arch type:
The normal arch: You have a normal arch if your footprints show the ball and heel connected by a broad band along the outside edge. A normal arch is considered "biomechanically efficient" - not in need of gait correction or specialized support. Runners with normal arches should seek shoes that offer basic stability features and cushioning.
The high arch: You have a high arch if your footprints show the ball and heel connected by a narrow band or no band along the outside edge. A high-arched foot may supinate, or roll outward. Because pronation is part of the shock-absorption function of the foot, high-arched feet may be poor shock absorbers. Cushioning shoes, which allow maximum movement and flexibility, are recommended for high-arched feet.
The flat foot: You have a flat foot if your footprints show the complete outline of your foot. Flat feet often overpronate, or roll inward excessively, while running. Motion-control shoes, with strong stability features and extensive medial (inner foot) support, are recommended for runners with flat feet.
A RUNNING SHOE FOR EVERYONE
Running shoes are designed to match different foot types. The following list describes the types of shoes and how they fit different foot needs.
Stability: Often suitable for individuals with normal arches, who are considered biomechanically efficient (see above). Stability shoes usually are built on a straight or semicurved model, or last. A stability shoe also offers some motion control and may be a good choice for a mild overpronator.
Cushioning: Recommended for the high-arched runner, whose foot may roll outward (supinate) rather than the natural slight inward roll, or whose feet may be relatively rigid. Cushioning shoes emphasize flexibility and usually are built on a curved or semicurved last to encourage a normal motion of the foot. Cushioning shoes usually offer no medial (inner foot) support.
Motion control: Designed for runners with flat feet, or overpronators, who have excessive inward rolling motion in their gait. Motion-control shoes tend to be built on a straight last and offer more stability features as well as additional parts, such as medial posts, to prevent overpronation.
Lightweight: Designed for high-performance runners and faster-paced training. Lightweight shoes emphasize flexibility and moderate support and typically are not available in motion-control versions. They usually are built on a curved or semicurved model to follow the natural motion of the foot.
Trail: Designed for off-road running, trail shoes have a deeper lug pattern in the sole and a toe bumper for additional protection. They may have water-resistant or waterproof uppers. These shoes emphasize stability, traction, and protection from varied terrain.
Eclipse! Wave! Trusstic! G-Tek! GTO! Today's shoes have high-tech features, often with names that don't explain much. What do you really want in a shoe? A good running shoe will have all or most of the following features:
A foam midsole, perhaps with layers of different densities, to provide cushioning and shock absorption. Terms to know: EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) and PU (polyurethane), the materials from which these foams usually are made. EVA is slightly softer than PU. EVA and PU may be layered together in a shoe, or a shoe may have more than one density of EVA.
A rubber outsole, perhaps with a deeper lug pattern for off-road traction, or with pieces of different densities to offer more durability in high-wear areas. Terms to know: blown rubber, a slightly softer form, and carbon rubber, a more abrasion-resistant material. Outsoles may have "strike pads" for additional cushioning or durability in high-impact or high-wear areas.
Some form of support around the heel, to help keep the back of your foot stable, is called a heel counter. In dress shoes, this is a thin rectangle of material inside the shoe. In running shoes, it is more often a stiffer material, perhaps even a wrap around the heel, and often placed on the outside of the shoe.
You may need some kind of medial (inner foot) support, often called a medial post. This could be as simple as some slight build-up in the midsole near the arch of the foot or as elaborate as a hefty piece meant to push back against the foot that overpronates, or rolls inward too much.
The sole is held on your foot by an upper, which should leave plenty of room for your toes and should have a lacing system that allows the shoe to fit snugly against your foot without binding. Ghilly lacing, which uses fabric loops instead of eyelets to guide the laces, may be more comfortable. Many shoes have a combination of Ghillies and eyelets. Some uppers have plastic overlays that pull down on the foot, such as elastic straps. Most uppers are made of a combination of breathable mesh fabric and stiffer reinforcing pieces that give shape to the shoe.
Uppers are lasted, meaning they use a shoe-construction method that affects their fit and stability. A slip last is the most flexible, socklike pattern and usually has one seam down the middle (which you can see if you remove the insole). A board last offers more shaping and stability by stitching around the perimeter of the foot to a thin, fibrous piece. A combination last (or combi-last) usually has board lasting in the back of the foot and slip lasting near the toes. A Strobel last is a form of slip lasting where the upper is stitched around the perimeter of the foot but no board is inserted. Board lasting is more common in motion-control shoes, and slip lasting is more common in cushioning shoes.
WHEN TO REPLACE YOUR SHOES
Running shoes typically last 350 to 500 miles. By then, the cushioning and support features of a shoe have been compressed so much they may no longer do their job. It's important to replace old shoes because inadequate or uneven support or cushioning can lead to injury.
Many systems can help you keep track of your shoe use: estimating mileage, keeping a detailed log, or using an online log with a built-in tally and reminder system. Try looking at your soles to see if they're worn or testing them on a sandy patch; if you feel they've lost traction, it may be time to replace them.
Some runners alternate between two pairs of shoes at different wear levels, giving each pair a chance to dry thoroughly and the rubber and foam compounds time to decompress fully, as well as helping to determine when a new purchase is in order.
There is another time to replace your shoes: if you notice that any part of the shoe has collapsed or broken. Although many running shoes have plenty of cosmetic touches, most features contribute to foot stability, support, and cushioning. A deflated air pocket or detached reinforcement piece can be uncomfortable at best and expose you to serious injury at worst.
GETTING THE BEST FIT
Shoes aren't just designed for different foot shapes; they are designed for different running patterns, too. Do you do long runs four or more times a week? Short runs a couple of times a week? You may want different shoes for event training than you use for the event itself.
The time of day you shop is a factor, too. Feet swell as you use them, and that's especially important to remember when buying running shoes. Try them on at the end of the day so you have a better idea of how they'll feel after a run. Even then, remember to leave about a finger-width of space between the end of your longest toe and the end of the shoe - your feet can swell even more on a run, and you don't want bruised toes and black toenails.
Another detail to consider is the potential for medical problems. The foot takes a heavy load, and runners can develop many problems that can be made worse by the wrong shoes. Bruises under the toenails, blisters, plantar fasciitis (microtears in foot tissues that cause pain on the bottom of the foot), Achilles tendinitis (which causes pain at the back of the heel), and pains in the ankles or anywhere up to the back - all indicate a problem in need of attention, whether it's just buying a new pair of shoes or getting medical advice and treatment. Don't just "run through the pain."
The bottom line: Fit is queen. Learn about your feet and try on many different shoes. Even if the first pair feels like a wonderful hug, try others for comparison. Don't expect to wear the same size running shoe and dress shoe. Manufacturers may size shoes very differently, and you need more room in a running shoe, too. And don't expect an ill-fitting or uncomfortable shoe to "break in." Your running shoes should be comfortable from the starting line.
Now find those shoes and hit the ground running!
A SHOPPING-DAY CHEAT SHEET
Modified June 2001.